The Ukrainian War and Russian, Chinese, and US Interests: Energy-starved South Asia Walks a Tightrope

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Asma Khan alone

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has created global fiscal disruption. US crude oil briefly hit a 13-year high of $130 a barrel in March amid Western sanctions on Russian oil and gas, with Russian gas prices also rising sharply.

The resulting supply chain deficit has created a global shortage of basic commodities, exacerbating food insecurity as global debt soared above US$300 trillion. Russia looked to Asia as a default market for its energy amid the crisis, but it hasn’t found many takers in South Asia.

India, the biggest player in the region, was one of the first countries to buy Russian oil at a discount. He also refused to join the economic sanctions against Moscow and abstained during the UN resolution condemning Russian aggression. This went against the position of its key partners in the Indo-Pacific region, which earned it the ire of the United States.

Many factors explain the adoption of this policy by India. First, New Delhi wants to preserve and transmit its strategic autonomy. He doesn’t want to be seen as part of a certain bloc against another nation, especially given his recent border confrontation with China.

Second, India has a long-standing relationship with Russia and is heavily dependent on it for arms and oil. In the event of a future conflict with China, India would not want Moscow to align itself with Beijing. India depends on Russia for most of its armaments, with at least 60% of its conventional arsenal of Soviet or Russian origin.

Despite efforts to diversify its arms acquisition, India cannot totally renounce Russian arms. India also recently received its first shipment of Russian goods along the North-South International Transport Corridor, which it intends to use to control Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative in the region.

Indian state-owned companies have also invested heavily in Russian oil and gas assets. India cannot afford to turn off the Russian tap as it imports more than 85% of its crude oil needs.

Imran Khan, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, was on an official visit to Russia when the latter invaded Ukraine. Khan was later removed from office and blamed a Western plot for his ouster, citing his visit to Russia as a major reason.

Pakistan subsequently abstained in the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia, calling for a negotiated settlement. This was intended to avoid the precedent of international acceptance of military intervention as a means of conflict resolution, given Pakistan’s dispute with India over Kashmir.

The visit to Russia was presented as a “prelude to a closer relationship”. Pakistan’s refusal to be invited to US President Joe Biden’s summit on democracy and Khan’s presence at the Beijing Winter Olympics and in Russia were seen as evidence of Pakistan’s move towards an “axis revisionists.

While the United States is focused on the Indo-Pacific, Pakistan is interested in building relationships with regional players who have influence over the strategic architecture of South Asia and Central Asia. Like China, Pakistan also needs Russia to work with Central Asian states on inter-regional connectivity and trade projects.

Pakistan also provides Russia with access to the Arabian Sea, with Russia’s intelligence chief making a 2016 visit to the port of Gwadar – the centerpiece of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Russia has also expressed interest in joining CPEC.

The interests of the two countries are also converging in Afghanistan as Russia hopes to drive militant Islam out of Central Asia. Plans to build the Pakistan Stream gas pipeline with the help of Russia are also underway.

The aim was to divert energy supplies from the Middle East to energy-hungry Pakistan from Europe, thereby increasing the latter’s dependence on Russian gas. Khan’s successors in Pakistan, however, showed little interest in importing Russian energy, despite a debilitating economic crisis.

The US quest for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” has drawn Russian attention to the region. Sri Lanka is a natural ally. Russia has been a reliable partner both in times of peace and in difficult times, providing essential support during the civil war in Sri Lanka. It has invested in the island’s industrial sector and is one of the biggest importers of Ceylon tea.

Sri Lanka is also a key partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In the grip of the worst economic crisis in its history, Sri Lanka has already bought 90,000 tons of Russian crude and is ready to buy more. Given his financial quagmire, he has few other options.

Having also abstained in the UN resolution against Russia, Bangladesh finds itself in a delicate balancing act. It relies on the US and European markets for its export industries, the cornerstone of its economic boom, while also being part of the Belt and Road initiative. He also expressed interest in joining the “Indo-Pacific relationship”.

Bangladesh has traditionally had strong relations with Moscow. Russia is an important source of development finance for the country, having invested heavily in its energy sector. Dhaka’s main goal is to keep its economic and social transformation on track, so it’s hard to see it taking sides. It has so far refrained from buying Russian oil.

As Asia becomes Russia’s financial saviour, China has emerged as a leading market for Russian crude oil, closely followed by India. In doing so, India aspires to strike a balance between its strategic partnership with the United States and the imperatives of its relationship with Russia while ensuring control over China.

Asma Khan Lone is a Kashmir-based scholar and the author of the upcoming book, “The Great Gilgit Game”. A graduate of Cambridge University, Asma has also taught at OP Jindal Global University, India.


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